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Bilingualism, Using Two Languages in Everyday Life: Helpful or Harmful to K-12 Students Now & Later?

By Leonard Shurin, M.Ed., IU8

Attitudes against bilingualism in school children for decades have been, and are even now, often based on myths and misinterpretations, rather than scientific findings and data. We will review the myths and misinterpretations concerning bilingualism, and the facts we now have.

When I was in eighth grade, I was told by a school counselor I had to take two years of any foreign language, if I wanted to go to college. There was no other practical reason, he said, to study a foreign language. To be in the medical field, I had to take Latin. I asked to take both German and French, but I was permitted only one, so I chose German.

Pediatricians, psychologists, educators, school counselors, linguists, and other professionals would tell parents, whose L1 language was not English, to stop using that language and only use the L2 language of English, even at home. I assessed a grade 1 EL for English, whose family came from the Philippines, and who had zero English skills. They stopped using Tagalog, their L1 language, at home, just because a school official suggested this would help their child acquire English more quickly. Most experts in ESL agree that acquiring English proficiency takes 7-10 years. I have no idea how this family communicated!

The belief was that acquiring a second language (or Heaven forbid, a third language) would “push out” the first language, since the language center in your brain was like a full glass of water (filled with English), and pouring more water in “forced out” the English already there. A student would, in essence, forget or lose their L1 language. The “scientific” name for this was “Separate Underlying Proficiency,” now discredited. This belief, incredibly, is still widely held today; ELs in this theory become “confused” if they attempt to remain bilingual!

We now know that the brain’s language center uses “Common Underlying Proficiency.” This means the L1 language supports the L2 language, and the L2 language supports the L3 language, and so forth. Advances in science and technology, and non-invasive studies of the brain, have proven simply that the more languages you know, the smarter you are in many ways.


Advantages of a Multilingual Student, or a student who studies a foreign language

With the world continually growing smaller, bilinguals and those acquiring languages have proven to have a distinct advantage in the world: socially, educationally, physically, and economically.

  • Acquiring a second language improves the functionality of your brain; boosting your problem-solving ability.

  • Multilingual students and students who study a foreign language score better on standardized tests than monolingual peers, especially in mathematics, reading, and vocabulary.

  • Multilingual students become excellent multi-taskers and they make better rational decisions.

  • Multilingual individuals are much less likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Businesses aware of these advantages will ask applicants for a position to list how many languages they can speak, read, or write. Ever wonder why that question is on an application for a job?


A final word to teachers who have ELs in the classroom: it is perfectly normal for them to be experiencing Translanguaging. This was formerly known as Code-Switching. This simply means that a child, or adult, acquiring another language such as English will use both the L1 and L2 languages as they acquire their L2 language. Anyone who has ever been in a country that did not use English will immediately attest to this technique, as one tries to juggle vocabulary, grammar, syntax, pronunciation, colloquialisms, idiomatic language, and dialects in two (or more) languages. This is perfectly normal in the classroom when acquiring a second language and is not a sign of a cognitive issue in a student; nor should an EL be told not to do this-it is almost an instinct, and of course never lose grade points for this behavior.

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